Superintendent of Schools Paul Vallas told OIB on Tuesday the pieces are coming together to build a new Harding High School on the Boston Avenue property owned by General Electric that has nearly completed dismantling the massive former arms and munitions factory that gave the city the name Arsenal of Democracy built by Remington Arms in 1915.
Vallas said building a new Harding comes with much added economic value for the city. The current Harding property could serve as a health and medical sciences academy for its neighbor Bridgeport Hospital. It also provides expansion opportunities for the hospital. Vallas says a new Harding is in the design phase and a timeline for completing a new school is September 2015. The estimated cost is $78 million. The school will house 800 students in grades 9-12. The facility will include an athletic complex with full football and softball fields.
Harding opened in 1925 and its age is showing dramatically. Roughly 1200 students and a staff of more than 100 are learning and teaching under a rotting infrastructure. Estimates to rebuild the school at its current location had been roughly $50 million. The city was challenged to relocate the students while building a new school on the existing site because of so little available land elsewhere in the city. The Fairchild Wheeler Interdistrict Magnet High School currently under construction, set to open for the 2013-14 school year, is expected to absorb some students from Harding.
The GE site, however, solves the land problem. Vallas says discussions with GE officials, Mayor Bill Finch, municipal leaders and state legislative decision makers has the project and funding sources tracking in the right direction. Harding, bounded by Boston, Barnum and Central Avenues, is located a few blocks from the GE land.
Vallas also shared a new twist in the Harding construction: a potential name change.
Vallas joked that naming the school for Warren G. Harding, the 29th president whose short-lived administration was marred by scandal, is “the epitome of low expectations.” Harding, a Republican who died in office in 1923 of an apparent heart attack, is generally ranked by presidential historians at the bottom of the barrel.
Board of Education member Ken Moales has his own suggestion for naming the school. How about Barack Obama High School?
Speaking in his office Tuesday afternoon, Vallas says addressing antiquated school buildings has been one of his priorities since State Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor recommended his appointment about six months ago. Local and state officials have also announced funds to build a new Longfellow School in the city’s West End.
Since his time in Bridgeport Vallas says his work has focused on balancing the school budget, building a five-year budget plan, addressing school safety issues, streamlining payroll costs, implementing a textbook program and improving utilities and operational efficiency.
Vallas told OIB he hasn’t made a final decision about how long he’ll remain on the job in Bridgeport, but it could be as long as the completion of the next school year. Vallas was brought in as a turnaround professional for a permanent school chief. Vallas has led school systems in Chicago, Philadelphia and New Orleans.